20 October 2009

Thyraphobia, or Purity of Heart is to Fear One Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Not Do Again (Pt. 15)


This serial post has gotten way out of hand. This is the fifteenth post under this title. Other matters have been put aside or shelved. My blog socializing has diminished while I've been drafting it. More to the point, my thoughts have been meandering seemingly aimlessly into matters far afield of my own experience that afternoon last summer when I failed to talk myself into jumping out of an airplane. It's time now to wrap things up.

Thanks to all who've had the patience to read over or through this seemingly endless series. And, especially, thanks to someone I don't know personally (hell, I don't even know his name), but whom I consider a blog-friend, BlckDgRd, who has faithfully linked, if I'm not mistaken, to every single one of these posts. Go read his blog. Go on, do it now. Then come back. I'm not going anywhere. But, yeah, read his blog every day (except maybe those days when he rants about DC United. Heh!)

This, then, will be my last post on this topic, under this title.
Resolved: I will never be a soldier, much less a good one. I knew this back when they threatened to draft me to fight in the police action in Southeast Asia where I knew I would surely die. The fear is too great in me. But, so is its flipside: my love of life and self.

One's life is the most important thing one has. It is, really, all one has: everything. A great and marvelous gift. Once it is gone, self, identity, and consciousness of the world vanish. Life is not something to be given up lightly or surrendered—especially under false or illusory pretenses.

Once you get beyond the ritual and dogma and supernatural claims, there is a great and wise truth at the base of Christianity, and it stems from the story of the life and death of Jesus. One verse (and I don't want to be taken for a proof-texting, verse-quoting preacher here) captures this thought: There is no greater love than that a man should give up his own life for the sake of his friends. That point is stated outright in the Gospel of John 15:13. Theological scholars, i.e., the Jesus Seminar, do not necessarily believe this was an actual saying of Jesus primarily because it comes in a passage in which Jesus calls for loyalty to himself. It has Jesus predicting what will happen to him after he and his unruly friends trash the main temple in Jerusalem during Passover: he will step up and take the rap for his gang of rowdies so they can live to fight another day in their quest to bring about the end of time. It may, in substance, have been a true teaching of Jesus, but, in all likelihood, the saying itself was a later ascription to him by the community of believers. Already, here, they are using Jesus as a symbol around which to cement the bonds of aggrieved community, to manipulate the loyalty of a small, committed cadre. This, I've said, we are to be wary of.

Still, it does state a fundamental, yet all-too-forgotten (or -ignored) truth of Christianity: we ought to love one another. Sacrifice to make others' lives better, to make a better world here and now. The argument is, of course, who are these others—one's friends in the biblical language—and what constitutes a better world? That is for each person to decide.

The sentiment is this: love is a great and powerful emotion, greater than fear or hatred or shame or anger—the complex of emotions I've been examining in this series. It is the cement of human community [see here]. Factionalism and eternalism alike have been used to pervert that love, to demean it, and turn it into its opposites. Fellow-feeling (to borrow Scheler's term, see here) can be manipulated by playing on people's insecurities, by telling them who their friends are and what their vision of a better world should be.

Concretely: if I am invested with some sort of political or spiritual authority and have dreams of warfare (either offensive or defensive), to get you to do my warlike bidding and enlist you in my cause, I must first convince you of our natural affinity (family, community, nation, race, religion, etc.) and our mutual grievances against a common threat, stressing the goodness and rightness and love of our cause and the evilness and hate of our foe. To get you to be willing to sacrifice your own life in the service of this cause, I must break down your natural emotional defenses (to wit: fear and self-preservation) by demeaning you and your life. I accomplish this by appealing to your own existential situation of misery (it is caused by the devious threats of our enemy) and your natural emotion of shame (you are a fallen creature, weak, flawed, and unworthy). My cause, I assert, will ennoble your own life and, in the process, make things better for those about whom you care. Then I must cement your loyalty by promising you and convincing you that your faithfulness will surely result in some form of reward—physical (loot, booty, spoils, heroic acclaim, etc.) or spiritual (eternal life and favor in paradise).

That is the formula. They all use it; they always have, and they always will.

In dreams, Carl Jung asserts, doors represent opportunities for change and transformation. One should never refuse the opportunity to enter them, to grow, to deepen one's understanding of one's self and one's world—in dreams. In an airplane at 14,000 ft. listing to one side with an open door, something I've been calling thyraphobia prevented me from taking that chance. But that was in reality. It was not a dream.

Yet, by not going through that open door, I gained the opportunity to understand something about myself and my own limitations. I learned that I am not afraid of fear itself. I was ok with it at the time, even though it overtook me completely, even though it rocked my world. And, upon reflection (some may call it rationalization or justification), I'm still ok with it: fear is a defense, an emotion tied to self-preservation and love of life. It is nothing to be ashamed of, not a thing to hate in oneself. It is, in effect, the reason I am skeptical of power and deeply anti-authoritarian. It is the reason I am, by and large and for the most part, a pacifist.

I was not destroyed by my fear and shame. I did not seek to lash out at some foe, real or imagined. I owned my thyraphobia, claimed it as mine. As part of who I am.

It was a rational fear—though somewhat hypertrophied. It had a real-world stimulus. No one told me I had to fear this thing. No one broke down my resistances. If anything, this fear was resistance itself. And it arose out of a deeply rooted sense of self-preservation, if not self-love. Not, I emphasize, vanity. But a love of life, a love of the world, a love of the experience of its awe and majesty, its miracle and, yes, its ugliness and evil, its fear and shame. It was a direct expression of my will to survive, of my desire to experience as much of the world as I possibly can within the four score years the Fates have putatively allotted me. And yes, it was an expression of who I am—who any of us is at heart.

But it was also a holy fear. To live is to be afraid: everything we have and do, every accomplishment and affinity, every battle we fight, is an effort to stave off this fundamental truth. We erect barriers and buffers between us and this primordial shock of recognition at how small and insignificant we truly are in the face of an at-best neutral universe.

Not to fear life and reality is not to respect it. Fear and the complex of concomitant emotions that flow from it are not to be dealt with lightly. They are to be nurtured—for they are life itself.

That day, in that airplane some two miles above the surface of the earth, when it came my time to jump, I met the fear—pure and crystalline—at the heart of my very being, at the heart of all being, and I've made peace with it in all its power. And, as I said, I will never not jump again.

Standing waiting for a man to show
Wide eyed one eye fixed on the door...

You know it makes sense, don't even think about it
Life and death are just things you do when you're bored.
Say fear is a man's best friend;
You add it up it brings you down.

"Fear Is A Man's Best Friend," John Cale

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